Fact file: Federal campaign periods and spending limits

WATCH ABOVE: Tom Clark explains what voters need to know about casting their ballot in the upcoming federal election.

A day in Ottawa is not complete without speculation. Lately, that critical part of the business has focused on the election: will Prime Minister Stephen Harper stick to the fixed election date? Will he extend the campaign period or keep it short?

Though it’s conjecture, whatever the politicos and pundits are talking about is rooted in an understanding of the laws regulating election as well as some insight to the parties’ strengths, weaknesses and motivators.

Here are some of the rules that will come in to play in Harper’s decision:

Length of an election campaign

Since an amendment was passed in 1996, federal campaigns have to last at least 36 days, with election day falling on the 37th.

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There’s no explicit maximum length for campaigns, but the Charter stipulates Parliament has to sit at least once every 12 months. So that leaves about 10 months of the year that could, feasibly, be spent campaigning.

What’s stopped prime ministers from campaigning for 10 months? Any number of reasons, probably, but popular opinion points to the spending limits imposed on election campaigns.

READ MORE: Conservatives push through controversial overhaul of election rules

Before the Conservatives changed the law during this Parliament, the spending limit Elections Canada enforced applied to the entire campaign period, no matter how long or short.

Only one election since 1996 lasted longer than the legislated minimum time. The 2005-06 election straddled the new year, lasting 55 days. It also resulted in Harper’s first win and became known as the time the Conservatives skirted election spending laws with their “in-and-out” scandal. (Charges against the party were dropped in 2012 after the Conservatives pleaded guilty to overspending and repaid more than $230,000 as part of a plea deal.)

Spending limits

Elections Canada sets the spending limit for each election based on the number of electors and candidates. Broadly, the point of limiting spending is to put parties on a level playing field, at least during campaign periods.

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This year, the limit is expected to be around $25 million; we’ll have a precise figure once the election is called.

In 2011, the limit was $21 million — and remember, parties could spend up to the limit, but not a penny more, regardless of how long the campaign lasted (it was the minimum 37).

READ MORE: 5 things to know about Conservative election reforms as Mayrand takes the stand

What’s different now, since the Conservatives passed their amendments to the elections act, is the spending limit will increase by 1/37 of the initial limit for every day beyond the 37th.

Doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up. Say the 37-day limit is $25 million, each extra day of campaigning opens the door to another $676,000 to spend. After a month, they’re looking at adding a cool $20.3 million to the limit.

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Great news, if your party has the money. And that’s a big “if.”

Since the 2011 election, the Conservatives have raised almost $69 million, the Liberals more than $43 million and the NDP roughly $30.5 million, according to figures filed with Election Canada.

Election date

No one’s really arguing this one anymore, but a few months ago the speculation was all about whether Harper would call a spring election and, once again, flout his fixed election date legislation.

Obviously, that time has passed, but there is still some wiggle room.

The bill his first government passed, in 2006, fixed the date for all elections to the third Monday of October, four calendar years after the last general election. Following that brings us to Oct.19, 2015 —the date most are now referring to as election day even though, technically, the date hasn’t been set.

The wiggle room rarely spoken of is the fact the Charter says each Parliament can sit for a maximum of five years. So who’s on team May 2016?

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